Unpacking Your Own Story

The room is dark. You stare into its cavernous mouth, pause, then begin to descend.

The stairs are old and each step whispers out under the weight of your feet. Fumbling along the wall at the bottom to steady yourself, you grab a fistful of cobwebs. You brush them off on your dress pants. Somewhere in front of you the chain for the light hangs suspended. The dark consumes your arms as you reach out. The cold metal chain brushes your arm. You yank it down and watch the room sputter into view.

So many boxes. Piles of cardboard growing like bacteria.

They stretch towards the ceiling with greedy yearning. Spiders have generously decorated the gaps between boxes; even their webs don coats of dust.

Yesterday your co-worker had said she found her old collection of photographs in the attic while packing up the house to move. They were from her days as an aspiring photojournalist. As she spoke, her eyes glowed with nostalgia and her voice slowed to a gentle cadence like a lullaby. Then she turned around to continue typing up a brief but you sat there, taking in her words and the light in her eyes you had never seen before.

Moved by your co-worker and a growing, newfound curiosity of your own, you decide to take a look in your basement after work. You’ll just take a quick peek before heading back upstairs to tackle your mounting to-do list.

The boxes tower over you like trees.

You split the silence with a sigh and drag over a rusty paint can to step on. Your hands imprint into a layer of grime as you grab the box. The shaking in your arms as you lift the top box down reminds you how infrequently you go to the gym. “I’ll start going next week,” you tell yourself, but then you also know the chances of it actually happening are slim. These past couple months—years, if you’re being honest with yourself—it have felt like time is waning. One day you’ll wake up and there won’t be anymore of it left; that waxing crescent will never come.

Scratching on the top of the box indicates some words but they’re too faded to make out.

You wonder what could be so heavy. The lid flaps grate against each other as you pry them apart. Reams of yellowed paper sit inside the box. Typed on the top page is “Untitled” with your name and an impossibly old date below it.

You stare with disbelief. You had completely forgotten all about your twenty year-old self’s fantastic attempts at a novel. Head and body look on while your hand plunges into the box and hoists the pile of words out. A white glow emits from the pocket of your pants as your phone buzzes. For once you don’t even notice. You are too caught up skimming and scanning old worlds you created. You decide the reading light is better upstairs and place the manuscript on the base of the steps with the care deserving of a newborn baby.

Curiosity is piqued and a kind of wistfulness is stirring. It stretches and yawns and stumbles out of a long-held stupor.

You step up on the can again and bring down the next box. The buzzing and glowing in your pocket ensues so you reach back and flip the ringer off. Just as heavy as the last box, you can’t guess what this could be, but then again you have no recollection of packing any of these anyhow. You read the worn label with shocked recognition.

Dust rises to greet you as you settle onto the floor with criss-crossed legs. Pulling open the top, you stare down at its contents and remember.

Somewhere overhead a spider scuttles across the ceiling and the single light bulb looks on like a full moon. And there in the dust, between the spider and the moon, you sit in a marriage of grief and longing for things long untouched or seen.

With a frequency we probably would not care to admit, we put our dreams and ideas on hold.

Afraid other people will deem them foolish, inefficient, or naïve, we treat them like out-of-date antiques or broken parts. We pack and tape them up. We write haphazard Sharpie labels on them which read “For tomorrow” and stash them out of view. And there they sit, stacked in basements and attics, collecting dust.

Real, authentic stories however, or wherever we experience them—in a book or a movie, standing in line at the grocery store, getting coffee with a friend, hearing or reading a stranger’s perspective—remind us about those boxes.

Pulled out of ourselves by the arms of authentic connection and moving narratives, we unlock the basement door and plunge into the darkness where dusty dreams and old ideas sit…waiting.

Stories we relate to have the power to encourage and inspire us.

Other times they challenge us to think deeper, to venture beyond the fences our daily rhythms have nonchalantly built around us over the years.

Whatever response they catalyze, story rests at the core of human creativity.

A well-crafted or authentic story can resuscitate our wonder and provide language for nameless emotions and desires which have been wandering about looking for a home, for a safe place to land.

Stephen King says people want a good book which will “keep them turning the pages.” He writes,

This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.

Lead with story and watch as people—consumers, donors, students—move in closer as they are inspired to unearth and begin unpacking boxes of their own.

About the Author

Lindsay Isler

Lindsay is a graduate of the University of Virginia where she received a Bachelor’s in English Literature.